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“We the People” – the Return of Citizen Voters Part 1

By Harry C. Boyte, Center for Democracy and Citizenship

We need to rise to the occasion of citizenship. The American Democracy Project can take the lead. In the words of the civil rights song, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

I thought about this during President Obama’s televised Town Hall meeting Monday night on CNBC, three days after September 17, Constitution Day.

The opening question set the tone. A middle-class mother of two, the chief financial officer of a veterans organization, expressed her disappointment.

“I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now,” she said. “I have been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I’m one of those people, and I’m waiting, sir. I’m waiting. I don’t feel it yet.”

A young graduate of law school followed. ”Like a lot of people in my generation, I was really inspired by you and by your campaign and message that you brought, and that inspiration is dying away,” he said. “It feels like the American dream is not attainable to a lot of us.”

The president dutifully listed all the things that he and the administration had tried to do.  The media mavens said it wasn’t enough. “The president’s challenge is to restore confidence in his own leadership,” as Dan Blatz put it in the Washington Post.

No one mentioned the elephant in the room.

People didn’t vote for a man who said he was going to change things.  The country elected a president whose message was “yes we can.” This is the message of the Preamble to the Constitution.  The Preamble doesn’t say the president – or government — will solve our problems. It reads

We the people…in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.

Before 1787, in the great arc of human history, governments were not seen as created by the people as the instrument of the people’s work. Governments were handed down from antiquity. They were established by kings. They were imagined as acts of nature.

It was a breathtaking and bold statement for our nation’s founders to say, “We the people” establish our government as our instrument.

This was precisely the message that Barack Obama ran on for president.

Announcing his campaign in Springfield, Ill., on Feb. 10, 2007, Barack Obama said, “This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose.”  As he campaigned in the Iowa caucuses, he described his experiences as a community organizer. “In church basements and around kitchen tables, block by block, we brought the community together, fought for new jobs, and helped people live lives with some measure of dignity.”   During the campaign, a continuing message was that “active citizenship… will be a cause of my presidency.”

I kept thinking what a difference it would have made if one or two voters on Monday night had looked at the president, at journalists– and then turned to other voters and reminded the nation, we voted for “yes we can.”

At the Civic Agency Institute of the American Democracy Project on November 11-12 in Washington, I think we should discuss, plan, and strategize about how the students, faculty, and staff of our colleges and universities can join with libraries, community groups, and others to build a movement to reclaim our role as “we the people.”

Or, put differently, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. amy bravo #

    Right on! When the woman told Obama that she didn’t feel the change, I wondered what she was expecting. The “what can or what must you do for me” mentality in our country should not dominate the rare occasions we have for public discourse. How about hosting a televised brainstorm session with Obama to come up with potential solutions to the problems our nation still grapples with? Thanks Harry for writing this.


    September 22, 2010
  2. George L. Mehaffy #

    Harry…a terrific piece.

    Now you need Part 2. So now we all feel bad as a result of your chiding us to quit looking for a messiah. What do we do as “we the people?” How do you provide action steps for your readers as well as the core challenge. If too many citizens can’t imagine “we the people” in theory, I suspect they also can’t imagine what “we the people” actually looks like in practice.


    September 22, 2010
  3. Many thanks George.

    There are many things that people are doing that express the idea of government “of” the people and “by” the people — our meeting ground and partner, not simply a service provider, or goverment “for” the people. Examples can be found in Matt Leighninger, The Next Form of Democracy (2006), Carmen Sirianni’s Investing in America (Brookings, 2009) and Scott Peters new book, Democracy and Higher Education (2010).

    But the idea here is less about making a list of productive civic work than to prepare ground for a citizen movement that challenges political candidates and ourselves, as voters for 2012. We need to move from demanding consumers/children asking politicians to fix things for us to citizen/adults who insist on a partnership relationship.

    In a number of conversations we’ve had with students over the last year, we have found eagerness to break out of the “customer/child” role, and a lot of savvy about what it will take — discussion, role playing, readings, prepation. We hope strategic planning and preparation can begin at the Civic Agency Institute in November.


    September 22, 2010
  4. Thanks for posting this. This blog was quite popular yesterday amongst friends. It’s spot on and demonstrates the sense of expectation in politicians for citizens. Citizens continue to wait for change. There was a very popular song a few years ago that really bothered me (which was used by many politicians and organizations as an anthem ironically about taking action) about “waiting for the world to change.” We’re quite passive in conceptions and practices of citizenship.

    And as I write this, I know that I can include myself in the sense of expectations of what I want our government to do. I’m frustrated by the current administration for not doing enough, not bringing about the dramatic change I had dreamed of when Obama was sworn in. I was envisioning a new New Deal. And while considerable progress had been made in regards to some aspects of U.S. law and policy, we’re still not there. Not even close. Much of what makes front pages of news outlets is the response by folks from all walks of life and political affiliations that they want something different. That translates into a new flock of politicians or a reorientation of deck chairs on the same boat. It’s little more than a cosmetic change. The frustration from both right and left is still framed in a “we’re going to vote our way out of this mess” type of language. This doesn’t cut it.

    But as I write all of this, I’m forced to confront not simply the apathetic or frustrated citizen, but myself. It’s always easy to talk about the “other” in whatever sense and I fear that I’m doing that. You’re reminding me that I can’t do that, and especially not if I take seriously my role as a citizen. I’m not interested in wrapping myself in the mantle of “We the people” as many do these days; I’m much more inclined to do the work that is captured in that phrase rather than but it on a t-shirt or banner.


    September 23, 2010
  5. Bill Payne #

    Certainly we have to participate locally in our communities, as neighbors and as members of the electorate. We need to tell our stories and listen to those of the people in our community we encounter. While making a documentary about voting in 2004 titled 50/50: The American Divide, I discovered that I have a lot in common with people I had envisioned as my “opponents”. I no longer view people who think differently than I do about governance issues as my opponents, but as fellow citizens I need to listen to and work with.

    I also discovered that citizens are smarter and more complex than the media can (or wants to) portray. We need to develop an approach to the next general election that disarms the media. They cannot be in charge of the democratic process. They have failed us. But that means that WE must accept the responsibility to communicate to a broad range of people what matters to our community – local, state, national. And I’m sure that an internet only solution will leave far too many Americans out of the loop.

    I have begun to ask a wide variety of people in my life to discuss this challenge with me, as a way of hearing their stories, their ideas, and engage them in brainstorming. I think discussion followed by action will help us see more clearly how we can work together, no matter what we actually agree on.


    September 23, 2010
  6. I will reply in more detail later, but in the meantime I want to share a humorous political cartoon that I think captures the problem:


    September 24, 2010
  7. Paul Markham #

    Thanks Harry. This is both brilliant and timely. I resonate with Tim’s thoughts above and see this type of sentiment in my students almost daily. I could wax philosophical on it all, but here I will just say I agree and *now* is the time for action.

    I am intrigued by Bill’s statement – “We need to develop an approach to the next general election that disarms the media.” I understand the point of this comment. Media will no doubt serve an important role in anything we do, but it is certainly true that “money” should not equal “winning candidates.” I just listened to an NPR show on campaign financing last week and kept asking myself what it would look like for the electorate to simply not allow this dynamic to win out. I’m not necessarily talking about overturning the policy itself (although this needs to be addressed), but about cultivating a culture of the citizen voter that demands a different sort of “honesty” of our candidates. Of course, community organizing is a vital part of the solution, but it so often becomes mobilizing in our consumer-oriented society.

    I am fully on board for working this out and look forward to the planning meeting in November!


    September 26, 2010
  8. Granted, I’m part of this generation so I’m a little sensitive, and I don’t get into the idealization of the Millennials as many people do, but I think there is a strong desire on the part of young people to change things, to find ways to make things better. That is why they turn to community service instead of politics to solve problems. As you know, they turn away from the political process because they see it as dysfunctional. Of course, community service has a lot of problems (that you’ve written about), it’s important for young people to see themselves as equals with politicians and as important political actors in exactly the ways you describe above.

    I think we’ve had these events in our lives (9/11, the tsunami in Asia, Hurricane Katrina, Obama’s election, etc.) where we got engaged and felt like we were making a difference. But then it tapered off because there were no clear ways forward. Part of this was because this generation didn’t look for ways to stay engaged, but another part of this is because there was no one helping us understand that these events were a call to sustained – not episodic – citizenship. The great tragedy is that not enough of the civic fervor has been captured and maintained beyond these events.


    September 27, 2010

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Return to citizen voters « By The People
  2. We the People – The Return of Citizen Voters Part 2 «
  3. Needed: democracy movement on scale with American civil rights movement « By The People
  4. New Student Politics and We the People «

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